The astronauts who landed on the moon brought back incredible souvenirs: 842 pounds of moon rocks. Over the years many of those precious stones disappeared. Some were lost and others were sold for obscene sums of money on the black market. This is the story of the man who devoted his life to tracking them all down.
In 1998, NASA special agent Joseph Gutheinz was working out of a grass-covered Cold War-era bunker known as Building 265, located on the north side of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in Houston. A stocky, black-bearded senior detective with a Napoleon-sized personality to match his five-foot-seven frame, he typically focused his investigative energies on the big fish of the space-crime world: the defrauders and embezzlers who picked NASA’s loosely guarded pockets through major aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin and Rockwell International. But lately he’d been pondering the oldest, most widespread con in NASA’s 40-year history: the trade in fake moon rocks. Ever since the U.S. first landed on the moon in 1969 and began bringing back lunar samples to study, small-time grifters had hawked ash-colored rocks to gullible middle-class Americans. And in recent years, Gutheinz had noticed lunar confidence men cropping up at auction houses and online, exploiting the low-accountability marketplace that dominated the Wild West days of the early Internet.
Behind his office’s cipher-locked steel door, Gutheinz began to flesh out a plan to nab them. He called it Operation Lunar Eclipse. First, he created a fake estate-sales company, John’s Estate Sales, posing as the broker for an exceptionally wealthy client in search of a moon rock. For himself he took the name Tony Coriasso, a combination of his uncle’s last name and his brother-in-law’s first. To play the role of John Marta, the wealthy buyer, he enlisted the help of a U.S. Postal Service inspector named Bob Cregger.
In September 1998, the two detectives set the operation in motion, taking out a quarter-page ad in USA Today. Above a 1969 photograph of Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission, they printed MOON ROCKS WANTED. The number accompanying the ad was connected to a bugged telephone sitting on a folding table in what the pair referred to as the Hello Room, an otherwise empty closet attached to Gutheinz’s office.
On the morning of September 30, Gutheinz walked into the Hello Room and checked the phone’s answering machine. There was a message left the night before by a man identifying himself as Alan Rosen. Rosen claimed to have a moon rock for sale. Gutheinz picked up the receiver. Tony Coriasso, Tony Coriasso, Tony Coriasso. John’s Estate Sales, John’s Estate Sales, John’s Estate Sales, he said to himself as he dialed the number. Rosen picked up. He told Gutheinz that all those other calls he was getting were from con men selling bogus moon rocks. But he had the real thing.
Gutheinz had heard this whole good-con-bad-con routine before. He figured he’d just play along. Soon, however, Rosen was exhibiting a command of moon-rock history the detective hadn’t often seen from low-level lunar hucksters. Rosen told Gutheinz that during the Apollo program, NASA had brought back 842 pounds of lunar material. In 1973, months after the conclusion of NASA’s final moon mission, the Nixon administration cut up one particular moon rock, known as Sample 70017, into 1.5-ish-gram moon fragments, called goodwill moon rocks, that it gifted to countries around the world, as well as all 50 U.S. states.
Rosen wanted $5 million for his rock. Gutheinz visited a website on which Rosen had posted photos and information about his alleged moon rock. There it was: a Lucite-ball-encased, ash-colored stone mounted to a plaque with the flag of an indeterminate Central or South American country. Gutheinz leaned back in his chair. If this was a fake, it was a savvy con for a man who answers USA Today ads looking for black-market goods. He began to wonder, Is it possible that, for the first time, we’re investigating a real stolen moon rock?
Two weeks later, Cregger, posing as John Marta, contacted Rosen to purchase the rock. Rosen told Cregger he had purchased the rock from a retired colonel in Central America.
“You brought it back?” Cregger asked.
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve got it here. And how I got it here and all the rest is unimportant.”
Rosen assured Cregger that he had left no paper trail in bringing the rock into the States. Pretending to be reassured, Cregger agreed to a location for a meet: Tuna’s, a small restaurant and margarita bar off West Dixie highway in North Miami Beach. Cregger and Gutheinz packed a suitcase of windbreakers, vacation shirts, and anything else that might befit two wealthy men in their forties flying to Miami to buy a black-market moon rock for $5 million.
This is an excerpt from The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks by Joe Kloc. The full e-book single is available for sale from The Atavist, as a Kindle Single, for the iPad/iPhone, and other outlets via The Atavist website. Kloc is a former contributing editor at Seed magazine and researcher at Wired. His writing and illustrations have appeared in Mother Jones, Scientific American, and The Rumpus.